Sunday, December 18, 2005

Country music museum is deep in the heart of Texas 

Celebrity Autographs And Celebrity Addresses

After leaving Menard, Kimble and Mason counties, it's tempting to head for Interstate 10 for the bright lights and traffic of San Antonio, but if you do, you'll miss the waterfalls of Colorado Bend State Park and Brady's Heart of Texas Country Music Museum.

No matter where you spent the previous night, the road to Colorado Bend State Park can be a little hard to find. The best way from Mason County is to locate Highway 87 at Mason, then take Highway 386 to Fredonia, turn east on Highway 71 and drive to Pontotok, where you'll pick up Highway 501 and go more or less northward until you reach Bend, and then follow the signs four miles to the park.

One caveat -- the guided tour to Gorman Falls, the most beautiful spot in the 5,328-acre park, is only offered on weekends. If your schedule doesn't allow you to see Gorman the first time, visit the park anyway, and hike the trail that runs along Spicewood Springs, where you will see smaller, but still lovely waterfalls; pools so clear that you can see the fish from top to bottom, swimming through the reflections of the clouds above; and if you're lucky, a glimpse of black-capped Vireos, golden-cheeked warblers and high overhead, bald eagles.

Even if you're not into birds or water, this park offers something for just about everyone, with 16 miles of hiking trails, 14 miles of mountain bike trails and places to camp, fish and kayak. Kayaks are available for rent.

Finally, there are cave tours on weekends. According to a park brochure, there is a walking cave tour 9:15 a.m. Saturday and Sunday (resources and weather permitting), and a crawling cave tour 9 a.m. first Saturday of the month (resources and weather permitting.) Reservations are recommended.

San Saba County (population 6,086) is shaded over most of its 1,138 square miles by pecan trees -- thousands and thousands of pecan trees, both native and developed. It was here that English immigrant Edward E. Riesen developed the paper shell pecan. He named San Saba "the Pecan Capital of the World," and with his prodigious harvests, established pecans as the county's cash crop in 1874.

Pecans still play a big part in the county's economy, with five pecan companies accounting for revenues second only to government/services in the 2006 Texas Almanac.

Leave San Saba (pop 2,637 and the county seat) on Highway 190, which takes you west into McCulloch County and the town of Brady, site of a goat cook-off every September and the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum.

The museum is a celebration of those heroes to all of us who learned about life hearing songs of love gone wrong and cowboys crying in their beer. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, the museum features stage costumes, musical instruments, autographs, posters and other relics of more than 100 country music artists, including Kitty Wells, who still comes to Brady regularly to perform, with her husband, Johnny Wright.

Radio station KNEL disc jockey Tracy Pitcox, who serves as museum president, said that most of the costumes have been donated by the artists eager to perpetuate the legend of country music.

The largest item in the collection, however, was bought at auction: the bus owned and sometimes driven by Gentleman Jim Reeves. It's a little shabby and inadequate by today's standards, still smells faintly of cigarette smoke and has a rusty running board step.

"We bought this bus for $3,000, and then it cost us $3,100 to get it down to Brady."

Pitcox said there is a story that he can't verify explaining the rusty step.

"Well, they say that Jim loved to drive this bus, and he drove it fast, and of course, there were often times when they would play all night, then have to be in the next town to play the next night.

"So Jim would be driving, and some members of the band would have to answer nature's call, but Jim wouldn't be willing to stop.

"So he would slow down, and the guy would come up to the front, and they would open the door just as long as necessary, then close it and go on."

Old movies inspire fervent collector 

Celebrity Autographs And Celebrity Addresses

NEW MILFORD — In Simon Melzer's basement foyer, there is a black-and-white framed photo of the late Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in a famous scene from "The Honeymooners.''

It's an appropriate prelude to the retired Henry Abbott Regional Technical School media specialist's private Hollywood nostalgia museum, which would surely awe any old movie or horror film buff.

"I was a movie nut ever since I was a kid. That was my whole thing,'' said Melzer, 60, who just finished a film documentary titled "Hollywood and the Stars Nostalgia'' that will be shown on Charter cable Channel 21 later this month. "I'm a collector of everything movies from the silent screen through the 1970s. I always wanted to make my own movies."

Instead, his career as a state vocational school educator — he spent 13 years at Henry Abbott before retiring in 2001 — had him making promotional videos for schools. He also worked part time as a manager of the former North Street Shopping Center cinema.
Simon Melzer‘s collection includes this page from a 1920 issue of "The Moving Picture World."

Nowadays, he is pursuing his moviemaking and digital photography hobby by making independent films through his company, Si Melzer Productions, about the history of Hollywood, including one called "The History of Horror and Monster Movies.''

In his southern New Milford home, his movie passion is palpable.

Every wall and beam in his basement is covered with glossy, autographed photos of starlets of yesteryear and aged movie posters, all carefully preserved and framed. He has an original souvenir program of the controversial 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation,'' a series of Charlie Chaplin posters and one from Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety.'' There are photographs of silent screen stars such as Thea Barrett and glamour shots of actresses such as Lauren Bacall.

Lined up on one column in the room are black-and-white autographed photos of Elizabeth, best known for her long-running role as Samantha in the 1960s television series "Bewitched," and her father, Robert. There is an original "King Kong'' pepper shaker (Melzer doesn't know what happened to the matching salt shaker), and a 1935 steel film reel.
Simon Melzer‘s collection includes this page from a 1918 issue of "The Moving Picture World."

One of his most prized collectibles is a "Tarzan'' photo of a buff Johnny Weissmuller, arguably the most famous "Tarzan'' star, with an autograph Melzer obtained separately.

His now 86-year-old mother, Ilonka Schwartz, once worked for the G&M Bakery on Madison Avenue, and one day in the 1940s Eleanor Roosevelt's driver was a customer. His mother was desperate for an autograph of the First Lady, and she was somehow able to arrange one.

About 30 years later, Melzer traded that autograph for Weissmuller's. He has no regrets.

"They're my pride and joy,'' Melzer said of the autograph and another film photo of Weissmuller's Tarzan embracing Jane, played by Maureen O'Sullivan.

Melzer's most unusual item is called "Tarzan's New York Adventure,'' a full series of 8-inch lobby cards. A collection of that ilk could fetch a pretty penny. Melzer's entire collection of posters, autographs and other memorabilia is probably worth more than $20,000.
A 1925 photo of Greta Garbo was taken by Ruth Harriet Louise.

"But I wouldn't sell them,'' he said.

His collection stunned his friend Jay Adler, who reunited with Melzer a year ago at their 40th high school reunion.

"I couldn't believe how many posters he had in that special room of his. It' s like a museum,'' Adler said.

Upon their reunion, Melzer invited Adler to go with him to New Jersey for the annual "Chiller Theater,'' a convention of horror and science fiction buffs that often attracts the aging stars of those films and their relatives.

Melzer decided to interview some of the stars at the "Chiller Theater," and he and Adler teamed up to turn his footage into the Hollywood stars documentary.

Adler, who lives in Manhattan and is president of his own insurance company, said he was honored when Melzer asked for his assistance in making the film.

They endured a few rejections, including Bela Lugosi Jr., whose father was the famous "Dracula,'' for which Melzer has some original movie posters. But they also were granted permission by many, including the daughter of Boris Karloff, the original "Frankenstein'' and the voice of "The Grinch;'' Ann Robinson, the original "War of the Worlds'' actress, and Betsy Palmer of "Friday the 13th'' fame.

For the 25-minute film, Adler was the interviewer and Melzer served as the researcher and narrator. Original film clips accompany the interviews with the actors and actresses.

"It was an exercise in using my new digital camera and making a field production,'' Melzer said. "We didn't even think they'd (actors and actresses) talk to us. And most were so nice to give us one or two minutes.'

In total, they did 14 interviews, including actress Katherine Leigh Scott, who once played on the 1960s soap opera "Dark Shadows.''

In New Milford, Melzer is able to share some of his views with students through a history of the movies adult education class offered at the high school. He also still substitutes at Henry Abbott.

"I don't like George Lucas,'' Melzer said of the "Star Wars'' guru who might be a "master of special effects'' but not a classic filmmaker. "He made one movie over and over again.''

Melzer admires some of Steven Spielberg's films, but he considers masters like Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock true classic moviemakers.

"They invented the language of the cinema,'' Melzer said. "The kids making movies today don't know what they're doing.''

Computerized action and effects are almost cheating in Melzer's view.

"There are no storylines, no great writers,'' he said. "I don't know who writes this junk today.''

He is quick to say there have been a few exceptions.

He contends "Chicago,'' and "A Beautiful Mind,'' are film jewels, and he was impressed with Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby.''

Asked to name his favorite movies of all time, beyond "Tarzan," Melzer said, "Lawrence of Arabia,'' and "The Bridge Over the River Kwai.''

The most perfect movie ever made: "The Wizard of Oz.''


"The casting was perfect, the black and white and color, the editing was superb, and the special effects were out of this world,'' Melzer said.

Some of Melzer's favorite stars: John Wayne, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. His favorite starlet: the ever mysterious Marilyn Monroe.

Least favorite? Greta Garbo. The reclusive actress refused to give autographs.

Today, Melzer's movie memorabilia collecting has slowed. He now wants to concentrate more on filmmaking.

As for his family's take on his movie compulsion, Melzer laughs.

"My daughter (Jessica) could care less about movies,'' he said. "Every time I pontificate about movies, she runs away.

"My wife (Nancy) and daughter will go to the movies, but they are not interested in anything I have to say about them.

"But it's great that she lets me do all this crazy stuff.''

Could McCain's travels be precursor to presidential bid? 

Will he or won't he? The debate continues about the presidential ambitions of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. On Tuesday you can ask him yourself when McCain chats with readers and autographs copies of his new book, Character Is Destiny, at Poisoned Pen Central at 215 E. Grant St. in Phoenix. The event goes from noon to 1:30 p.m.

The book is the fourth collaboration between McCain and Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff. It tells stories of historical figures ranging from Mother Teresa to former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman. McCain has been crisscrossing the country in recent weeks, combining book signings with political stops in some states that pop up early in the 2008 GOP presidential primary race. Last week, McCain reopened his Straight Talk America political action committee, raising hopes for a 2008 presidential run.

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